WASHINGTON, D.C. – Delaware’s top two youth volunteers of 2018, Maricruz Contreras, 17, of Wilmington and Jenna Dewey, 13, of Felton, were honored in the nation’s capital last night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 23rd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Maricruz and Jenna – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn at an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Maricruz and Jenna Delaware’s top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February. In addition to their cash awards, they each received an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip with a parent to Washington, D.C., for four days of recognition events.
Maricruz, a junior at Delaware Design-Lab High School, plays a leadership and advocacy role in several organizations to support LGBT+ youth and educate the public about the challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “Seeing and experiencing firsthand the lack of knowledge and support for the LGBT+ community, I realized that it had to change, and that was when I knew that the idea of me being an advocate was key to my personal growth as a gay adolescent,” said Maricruz.
Maricruz has served as a mentor and leader in their high school’s Pride Club, teaching staff and students about the difficulties faced by LGBT+ students and how to foster a more supportive school environment. As a member of the national student council of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Maricruz writes blog posts, plans and assists with yearly events, and led the network’s Latinx Heritage Month activities last year. Maricruz also is involved in educational outreach in conjunction with LGBT+ History Month, and promotes safe-sex education as a member of Planned Parenthood of Delaware’s teen council. Most recently, Maricruz helped teach lessons at an annual anti-bullying conference and performed a stand-up comedy routine on LGBT+ stereotypes. “I take pride in who I am, and want to instill that in others,” they said.
Jenna, an eighth-grader at Postlethwait Middle School, collected nearly 1,500 books and several pieces of furniture to create a new children’s library at a local homeless shelter. Wanting to make a “strong, lasting” impact on her community, Jenna sent an email to her school principal asking if she could conduct a book drive at the school to benefit kids at a family shelter in Dover. “After hearing my idea, she gladly allowed me to share the plan with staff and students at our school, and they embraced the challenge,” she said.
Jenna made announcements to the student body and hung posters throughout the school, then created drop boxes to collect donated books. The response was so positive that she expanded her drive to all of the schools in her school district. As donations poured in, Jenna spent hours counting and labeling each book before packing them all up and delivering them to The Shepherd Place shelter. In addition to the 1,460 books that she provided, Jenna procured and painted three children’s chairs for the new library, and furnished three additional plastic chairs, a table and two bookshelves as well. “I felt extremely proud knowing that the amount of effort I had put in was actually going to pay off and make a difference in my community,” said Jenna.
“These honorees exemplify something we’ve known for a long time – that young volunteers have the power to bring meaningful change to their communities,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “These students have shown leadership and determination well beyond their years, and it’s a privilege to celebrate their service.”
“Through their acts of service, these honorees drive home a powerful lesson for their peers: that one student really can make a difference,” said Daniel P. Kelley, president of NASSP. “We are honored to shine a spotlight on the compassion, drive and ingenuity of each of these young volunteers.”
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network. More than 29,000 middle level and high school students nationwide participated in this year’s program.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program was created in 1995 to identify and recognize young people for outstanding volunteer service – and, in so doing, inspire others to volunteer, too. In the past 23 years, the program has honored more than 120,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.